COVID-19 Prompts Look at the Past and Future of City Life

empty bank offices are a far cry from overpopulated 20th-century cities

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The future of city life is unclear as companies suggest permanent work-from-home arrangements, NPR reported. Many large companies in urban ares are easing up on requirements to go into the office after recent stay-at-home orders and now-favorable views of telecommuting. How did cities change 100 years ago?

Vintage horse carriage and people
One hundred years ago, the changing nature of city life had vast transformations. Photo by pryzmat / Shutterstock

According to NPR, major banks including JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley have said they doubt their employees will return to their skyscrapers, while Twitter has stated its workers can work from home permanently if they choose.

“Crowded cafes and open-plan offices are dead now,” the article said. “Restaurants are dead, and offices have given way to Zoom calls and Slack chats. In New York City, around 5 percent of residents left between March 1 and May 1, but in the richest neighborhoods, at least 40 percent of people left. If the pandemic lasts for a while, what does it mean for our economic geography?”

The changing nature of city life also prompts a look back at the state of American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A Song of Waste and Fire

In the late 1800s, proper sanitation was a rare luxury in cities—especially in the South.

“In the 1880s, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Mobile, big cities, still had open sewers, where raw sewage was literally running through the streets,” said Dr. Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. “Philadelphia had 82,000 cesspools, but no proper sewage system.

“Boston simply used the harbor as its sewer, with the result that every time the tide flowed out the sewage would be carried away, but every time the tide flowed in most of it would come back again in only a slightly diluted form, and this went on literally for generations.”

Additionally, Dr. Allitt said, there were tremendous fire hazards at the time since most households had open fires for cooking and heating the home. Until about the 1920s, when electricity became widely available, kerosene lamps also featured in every household. Fires were very common and dwellings burned down all the time. Controlling them was a very different affair than it is today, as well.

“Until the development of municipal firefighting services, there were gangs of adolescent boys running in rival fire companies who’d rush to fires, and sometimes fight one another for the rights to extinguish a fire,” Dr. Allitt said. “The number of children who died from burns was horrifyingly high. Even in our day, where naked flames are a relative rarity we worry about fire, but then, of course, it was a far greater and more pressing anxiety.”

Revolutionary Transportation

“The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a great period of inventions and technological transformations, and many of them did come to affect urban life in a good way,” Dr. Allitt said. “One of them was the invention of streetcars. First of all, they were horse-drawn, then after 1890, they started to be electrified.”

In the 1800s, animals were a major part of city life, and Dr. Allitt described how horses used to die in the street. Unfortunately, horses are so large that at the time, one of the only ways to remove them was to have another team of horses drag it away. The advent of electric streetcars curbed the amount of horses—and, therefore, horse deaths—in major cities.

“The invention of streetcars made it possible for cities to spread out, because now you could live further away from your place of work, and commute there rapidly by streetcar, and then commute out again into the neighborhoods in the evening,” Dr. Allitt said. “That was one of the things that made it possible for cities to begin to diminish their very, very high population density.”

It’s difficult to believe that so many major changes to urban life happened just 100 to 120 years ago. The transformation of cities since the early 1900s highlights how drastically major metropolitan areas could change after the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Allitt is also an Oxford University graduate.